An Interview with Amy Richards

Here at The FBomb, we certainly do our part in defining what feminism means to teens today. While we’re still trying to figure out what our effect on feminism will be, the one thing we’re certain of is that despite our appreciation for the first and second waves of feminism, we are a wave unto ourselves – the third wave. It’s important that we develop our own voices and our own community, but bonds of sisterhood that span generations are equally as vital.

Amy Richards, writer (she wrote the AWESOME Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future), activist and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, understands this. The Third Wave Foundation is a “feminist, activist foundation that works nationally to support young women and transgender youth ages 15-30…working towards gender, racial, economic and social justice.” Amy spoke to The FBomb about her work with our generation through the Third Wave Foundation and her thoughts on our present and future.

As a spokesperson for the third wave, how do you see young girls in America today fitting into feminism?

I think young feminists today will help feminism precisely because they’ll be living more feminist lives and so they will be giving that very tangible example of what it means to be a feminist. I think also – and this is something that Gloria Steinem says – young women have better shit-detectors. I think that young women have grown up with more equality and will tolerate less inequality. Unlike in my generation, where it was great that we had girls sports, but we would never ask that the girls sports got the same funding that the boys sports had because we felt lucky that we had sports. The younger generation, it’s sort of like well of course we’re going to get funding. And it’s just the expectation that comes with having slightly more equality.

When do you think girls or women become aware in their lives that they must fit a certain standard or ideal society sets for them, that usually doesn’t involve taking a leadership role? How can we prevent it?

I have a 6 year old and a 3 and a half-year-old and I see in some instances standards are set in with kids very young. The standards are however different for some kids, they’re not all stereotypes, assumptions of what kids are, and some of the assumptions we make about what it means to be a good kid are not entirely gender-based. I do think that they start very young in terms of for girls, when they cry, we take it more seriously. With boys we say, “Oh, toughen up.” So those expectation start very, very young. I also think that parents, even the most well-meaning parents, when a girl will come down the slide and fall off will rush towards her and say “are you okay?” and not do the same to boys, so it's not as overt as it is later in life. But I see these clues that we give to girls and boys about what’s appropriate and what’s not. I think as we get older, I don’t see girls reacting so much to the media as they react to their friends. Yes, we all want to look like Kate Moss, or whoever is the model de jour, but I think that it's more harmful when we walk down the cafeteria line and we see that our friend doesn’t take a brownie and we don’t want to eat our brownie. Or we hear that our friends spend an hour on the Stairmaster, and we go “Oh my gosh, I need to do that, that’s why she looks so good.” I think the media is definitely at fault, but I think that what we see in that more personal way has a more negative effect on us.

As my generation of young women ages, how do you ideally envision motherhood for us? What do you hope we will be able to do with motherhood by the time we’re having children?

The one thing that has not happened from one generation to my generation is that it’s not parenting yet, it’s still really mothering. Even though people use the language of parenting it does a disservice to who really takes most of the responsibility. And I really hope that I see ten years, twenty years down the road it is going to be an assumption that fathers are as responsible for rearing children as mothers are. And we’re going to have enough examples of fathers taking responsibility, and we already have so many examples – we have it in single parent households, that the person who necessarily biologically is connected to the child or birthed the child is not necessarily the one who raises the child. I think that that will change the conversation from one about mothering. I also think that it is something I say in my book Opting In, it was very sad for me when I looked around at my generation of women who had been so confident and went to college and were going to graduate and run for senator, be a governor -- that was the mantra of most of my friends -- at a certain point, many of them, not all, and very few of them totally, gave up on their careers, most of them decided to take a backseat in their careers, but it was because they weren’t able to achieve the level success that they thought they were going to, so staying home to raise their kids was more used as a better explanation for why they hadn’t had the careers they thought they were going to have. So I saw a lot of women using parenting as an excuse or a justification. And it was very sad to me both that they couldn’t obtain the level of success that they thought they could, although sometimes it was unrealistic – everybody was like “I’m going to be Oprah by the time I’m 30 and then I’ll retire.” I think people realized that that wasn’t possible.  But the other thing that still is very sad to me about my generation of women is how many self confident, smart, accomplished women used pregnancy and then child rearing as an excuse to ask for the respect they should be entitled to under any circumstance. They’ll say, “Now that I’m pregnant, do you mind if we have dinner early?” or “I don’t want to go to your birthday party.” Pregnancy and then parenting becomes the excuse to really express our wants. To me that’s very sad that women don’t feel that they can ask for those things on behalf of themselves. I hope with your generation, not that we will make different choices, but that we will be more honest about the choices.

What have been some of the major accomplishments of Third Wave Foundation?

The main thing that Third Wave has done over the past couple of years that I think is very pioneering is transitioning to a very trans-friendly language. And it means being an organization for transgender folks, not exclusively for young women, and that is not only stated in the mission, but I also think it’s how this prioritizes grant-making, to look for grants and potential partners that are as trans-inclusive as Third Wave or who are looking to be. Third Wave has also forever had a program called “Why Give?” which is a philanthropic education program. And there have been many incarnations of “Why Give.” The biggest one was working with young people of wealth on how to structure their giving in a way that was more gender inclusive, and the other prong of Why Give has been a recent priority of Third Wave is to work with lower income young women strategies of raising money and redistributing wealth in their community, so it’s not a new initiative, but it’s a new phase of that initiative. Third Wave was also one of the groups very early on who got the language and the philosophy of reproductive justice, reproductive rights and reproductive freedom. And Third Wave, I think, has done a very comprehensive job of making sure that it seeps into the programming in reproductive justice. I think that a lot of other organizations have adopted the language in their work. They couldn’t see the intersectionality of all these issues and reproductive justice as one way of looking at them.

What have been the biggest oppositions you’ve faced in trying to implement a feminist and pro-transgender agenda through the Third Wave Foundation?

Interestingly, some of the most resistance has come from our allies. Specific to third wave foundation, which is an organization for young feminist activists, there was a lot of resistance from older feminists. There was a lot of embracing feminists, but there were a lot of older feminists who sort of said “Oh that’s cute you’re doing that,” or “Oh you’re really not going to raise a lot of money doing that” or “Why don’t you just do that as a program of what we’re doing. We’re already an established foundation and it would be a good partnership.” So the resistance was a sort of need to micromanage us, from feminist organizations. I think the next step – the Third Wave Foundation has now been around for 17 years – so some of those organizations have had to say “Okay, they clearly have something. We have to back off and let them do what they want to do.” But Third Wave, precisely because of targeting young woman, is now meant to fill in the gap of the rest of the women’s movement. It’s very sad to me that 15 years ago one of the main goals of Third Wave was to give young women a platform for leadership. We didn’t expect that would remain one of the only platforms for young women. We had hoped that other national women’s organizations would have young women on their boards, would have young women in senior staff meetings, would have young women when they wanted to do a new initiative around reproductive justice, would have young women predominantly at the table, because reproductive justice is something that predominantly effects women when they’re younger. And that sadly has not been in 17 years. The third wave has gotten tremendous support and hopes to continue to be open to women’s issues, but rarely have young women leadership and initiatives been integrated into other women’s organizations. And I think in some ways that gets some of those organizations off the hook, because they get to say, “Well, that’s Third Wave” rather than having to kind of more personally examine themselves.

The Third Wave Foundation emphasizes their pro-transgender agenda in their mission. What do you think our society will have to do to better understand what it means to be transgender? Will it just take time, or are there specific steps that must be taken?

I am shocked at how transgenderism is everywhere. When I first started traveling a lot about 10 or 11 years ago, I went to hear people speak and they would say “transgender” and I would immediately hear it as “transsexual” or “transvestite” or “cross-dressing” or “gender ambiguity” or “gender non-conforming.” I didn’t really understand what it was. And I do remember very early on feeling frustrated that it had to be located within the gay/lesbian/queer community, because it seemed to be confusing gender and sexuality, and I didn’t feel that that was the right home for those issues. I’ve been shocked at how much more conversive people are in the language around trans-issues and what it means to be trans and all kinds of stigmas that I feel like a lot of it is based on a new vocabulary, and in some ways I think it’s less threatening than other social justice movements because it’s presenting fluidity not necessarily a complete change and I think it’s harder for people to wrap their heads around “Oh okay, men are with men” or “A woman becomes a man.” That seems weird. I think people have had an easier time being like “Oh okay its somebody who feels a little bit of both.” And I don’t know that that’ll stay, but I have been surprised at how people have embraced it more than I realized. And it’s not unlike the gay rights movement- what happened in the gay rights movement, you might have a brother who is gay, or your uncle’s gay, and so this is something that affects me. And I think transgenderism is starting to have that effect. “Oh there’s this person that sells me my coffee every morning and I thought they were a woman but they’re a man, so okay, I’ll get on board with that.” Not to say there aren’t problems – I see people struggle with it all the time. I watched a very masculine-looking person walk into a woman’s bathroom and saw a security guard immediately be like, “Hey, you’re in the wrong bathroom.” And the person very calmly said, “No I’m not,” and walked into the bathroom. And the security guard accepted it and said, “Oh okay, my bad.”

Who have been some of the most influential women in your life and how did they shape who you are today?

My mother, definitely. My mother left my father before I was born and raised me on her own and even though everybody was saying it wasn’t something she should do or could do. Gloria Steinem was a mentor of mine when I was first coming to feminism, really encouraging me to write and be an activist and to design my life in that way. And then I would say that my peers when I went to Barnard College in New York City. I arrived there and all of a sudden I was so intimidated because I was so used to being the one who talked to adults and had internships and had traveled, then I got to Barnard and all of the sudden I was like, “Wow, you’re smart.” It took me a couple months to reorient myself and not be threatened by it and have it manifest entirely as jealousy but to be challenged by it and say “Oh my gosh, you’re my peers, that’s right I can learn from you.” 17 years later we all work in related fields, and can call each other. It’s nice that our lives overlapped in that way and we continue to mentor each other.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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